Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The demise of 'dot-comming'?

Joel Barrett

The Internet, as we know it, is about to change forever.

At least that's what ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, would have us believe. That's because on 20 June 2011, after years of board meetings, stakeholder submissions and fine-tuning, ICANN finally approved the introduction of a program to allow an infinite number of gTLDs onto the Internet.

A gTLD (which stands for Generic Top Level Domain) is the Internet extension that comes immediately after a domain name. gTLDs are best explained by way of example: .com, .net and .org are the most common ones, while .info, .biz and .pro are a little more obscure. gTLDs should be distinguished from ccTLDs, which are Country Code Top Level Domains and designate a particular country (.au for Australia, .ca for Canada, and so on). A basic Internet address generally looks like this: www.DomainName.gTLD or www.DomainName.gTLD.ccTLD.

There are 21 gTLDs at the moment, but this number is set to blow out under the New gTLD Program. Essentially, from 12 January 2012, any "[e]stablished corporation, organization, or institution in good standing" will be able to apply to ICANN for one or more new gTLDs to be added to the Internet. For example, a company like Canon, which has expressed interest, could hypothetically apply for .canon, .pixma, .camera, .photography, .technology, .smile or all of the above and more. A successful applicant will become the registry operator for the new gTLD, which means (among other things) that it will be able to sell a whole new set of domain names in that gTLD, keep the domain names for itself, or do a mixture of both. However, the price may prove too high for some smaller players: there is an administrative fee of US$185,000 per new gTLD, and that's just the beginning. Applying for a new gTLD could end up costing millions.

(Of course, the above description does not even begin to capture the complexity of the New gTLD Program. The gTLD Applicant Guidebook, which contains all the relevant rules and procedures, tops 350 pages.)

Although there are countless legal issues that arise from expanding the Internet so drastically (cyber-squatters and trade mark infringers will have a field day!), the interesting question for me is how companies will utilise their newly-acquired gTLDs and how we, as frequent users of the Internet, will respond. Cynics and critics claim that we are so wedded to the practice of searching, browsing and navigating the Internet within the .com paradigm (a practice I like to call "dot-comming") that new gTLDs may be fun and exciting initially, but will ultimately fall by the wayside like all other fads and gimmicks. Alternatively, hundreds of new gTLDs will turn cyberspace into a labyrinthine maze of back alleys, side streets and dead ends, making it impossible to locate even the simplest piece of information. Dot-comming, while not necessarily intuitive, is at least familiar.

I tend to agree with those who argue that if companies utilise new gTLDs in innovative ways, our searching, browsing and navigating strategies will adapt accordingly. Imagine how quickly you could check your phone bill if your personalised account page was located at YourName.vodafone. Think how easy it could be to shop online for a second-hand book if you could simply type in books.eBay. Want to rent a DVD, but not sure what's available in your suburb? Go to YourSuburb.Blockbuster. There could be a complete paradigm shift in the way we use the Internet, and companies will be able to reinforce these different ways of thinking through clever and persistent marketing and advertising.

I often have to fight my instinctive wariness of new technologies (back in 2005, I could not see how an iPod could improve my life when it was so easy to play CDs in my car, and a life juggling iPods and click wheels and iTunes just seemed too complicated). But I think that if companies take up the New gTLD Program as forecast, dot-comming could soon be a thing of the past, as obsolete as the floppy disk and the Discman (technologies that were all the rage as recently as 15 years ago).

So will the New gTLD Program actually revolutionise the Internet addressing system, or will it fizzle due to lack of corporate interest? And if it does take off, will the New gTLD Program improve the way we use the Internet, or will it just encourage gTLDs to spread uncontrollably across the online landscape like weeds, leaving a swathe of confusion, counterfeiting and cyber-squatting in its wake?

Only time will tell. If all runs smoothly (and it rarely does in the world of Internet addressing), we could know as early as January 2013, when the first new gTLDs are expected to land.

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